apologetics, arguments for God, atheism, naturalism, Religious Experience

Religious Experiences: Providing Warrant for Belief in God

Religious experience is something that has been shared by a significant minority (although it is perhaps a majority) of the population of the world. Surveys indicate that in 2000 about 36% of the population of Britain reported some kind of spiritual experience (Kwan, 515). 36% is a significant minority, but the fact is that it is possible that this number is too low. In fact, when people were allowed to develop a relationship and then conduct an interview (rather than simply have an impersonal poll), the percent of positive responses when asked about a religious experience increases to 62-67% (Kwan, 515).

The numbers are significant. Many people have what they perceive of as spiritual or religious experiences. The number is literally millions, if not billions. But what does this really mean? Does it reveal anything about the universe? Is there any way to argue for truth from such a subjective judgment?

Richard Dawkins certainly does not think so. In The God Delusion, he discusses the “Argument from Personal ‘Experience’” (note his use of scare quotes). Dawkins uses an illustration in which a man he knew thought he had heard the voice of the devil while camping, and when he shared this with some zoologists, they laughed at him… for the noise was simply the noise a local bird makes (Dawkins, 112).

I believe Dawkins almost manages to make a good point here. We should be skeptical of religious or spiritual experiences, if we ever experience them (1 John 4:1- Test the spirits…).  But does this mean that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation? Or indeed, does a naturalistic explanation somehow take precedence over a spiritual one?

Dawkins some convoluted argument against religious experience based mostly on the computational theory of mind (see here for a critique of CTM). I don’t think he is successful, but one can judge for themselves whether the CTM has any kind of explanatory power, or if it serves as a defeater for the spiritual (I again think it doesn’t in either case).

I would like to address the assumptions implicit in Dawkins’ story about religious experience in greater depth. If Dawkins doesn’t make this argument, it is certainly an argument I’ve heard many times before:

Conclusion: For any Religious Experience, there is a naturalistic explanation.

In the case of Dawkins’ story of the bird, there was indeed a naturalistic explanation. But there are two counters I would use against Dawkins and others who would argue against Religious Experience:

Counter 1: The claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation begs the question.

Counter 2: A naturalistic explanation does not exclude other explanations.

First, let’s address Counter 1. I argue that the claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation begs the question. What do I mean? Well, the claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation assumes that for every experience, E, there is a naturalistic explanation. It does not allow for any explanation outside of naturalism to account for any E. To see this, let’s look at what Conclusion, above, analytically:

Conclusion: For any Religious Experience, there is a naturalistic explanation.

Thus: Religious Experiences, do, in fact, exist. (This follows from the first part of the conclusion, which assumes that there is such a thing as a religious experience).

Now, the fact remains that those who experience Religious Experiences (REs) certainly believe there is a non-naturalistic explanation. Hence the reason they are called REs to begin with.

It therefore follows that: A person S, who has an RE, believes that the RE has a non-naturalistic explanation.

But then the Conclusion listed above is really:

Conclusion*: Person S believes their RE is non-naturalistic, when in fact, there is naturalistic explanation.

Conclusion* begs the question, as does Conclusion. They both assume the conclusion “there is a naturalistic explanation” without any grounds to do so. In fact, they assume that the category RE is mistaken to begin with, and it is in fact simply a Naturalistic Experience, not an RE.

The burden of proof is on those who wish to claim that every RE has a naturalistic explanation to actually show that every RE has a naturalistic explanation, especially in light of the argument from theistic experience below. Any simple assumption that every RE has a naturalistic explanation simply begs the question against the Argument from Theistic Experience.

Now, Counter 2 must also be examined. “Counter 2: A naturalistic explanation does not exclude other explanations.”

Let us take Dawkins bird example. Let us change the RE in the example from an example of an evil force to that of a good one. So rather than a demonic sound, the man perhaps thinks he hears angels singing, or some such experience of God or His power. Now we know that the sound is actually just some kind of bird, the “Angel Voice” bird, common to the region. But what if the friend never found out that the noises had this naturalistic explanation? I believe anyone would agree he would happily go on assuming that the experience was an RE.

But what is it about a naturalistic explanation that is supposed to serve as a defeater of RE? I think it is generally assumed that the knowledge of a naturalistic explanation for an RE is supposed to defeat the RE. In other words, if the Angel-hearer found out that the angels were in fact just the “Angel Voice” bird, he would have to give up the experience as an RE and assume it is rather a naturalistic experience.

But why?

I don’t think that even the friend’s knowledge of a naturalistic explanation would necessarily serve as a defeater of the RE, for a few reasons:

1. At the time the friend experienced the event, he believed it was an RE. With an RE comes many emotions and other experiences. These emotions and experiences aren’t somehow invalidated by the idea that there is a naturalistic explanation to the RE. For example, think of someone, (A) who has been in love with someone else (B) for many years, believing there was a mutual love. But suddenly, B explains to A that B has never loved A. Does this somehow serve to invalidate A’s love for those years? Further, would A be required to  give up love for B immediately, or at all? I don’t believe so. In the same way, person A could believe that B is an RE, and despite finding out that B was in fact a natural event, could go on believing that B is an RE… leading into:

2. Religious Experiences are compatible with natural explanations. It is said throughout the Bible that nature speaks of the glories of God (Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the Glory of God…” Psalm 69, Psalm 93, etc.). God is seen within a Christian ontology as one who works in and through nature to sustain the universe. Thus to claim that nature is somehow a defeater of something God is thought to bring about (an RE) not only begs the question, but also misunderstands the Christian view of nature.

3. There are plenty of things that have known naturalistic explanations that are still seen as God’s work by Christians and people of other faiths worldwide. Some examples are the beauty of a waterfall, the stars, various plants and animals, places like the Grand Canyon, etc. People know why these things occur naturally, and yet freely attribute such things to God. They aren’t multiplying entities unnecessarily (don’t begin sharpening Occam’s Razor yet), because they are simply saying that there is a certain order and beauty in all of these things that points to teleology. Further, even if one does want to use Occam’s Razor here, the first and second points still stand.

I’d also like to point out that if God does, in fact, exist, it would be wholly within His power to order things in such a way that REs would have naturalistic explanations that the people who experience them never find out about (and then continue in their belief of the RE). While I am not comfortable with claiming this is how God works (I don’t believe God works through what could be seen as trickery or deception, but does actually work in and through the world He set up, that being nature), I’m merely stating that it is possible.

I believe that the Argument from Theistic Experience actually helps grant warrant to belief in God.

First, a definition:

PCT: Principle of Causal Trust – “If it seems (epistematically) to me that x is present on the basis of experience, then probably x is present unless there are special considerations to the contrary (Kwan, 508).”

The argument:

1. Type PCT is correct

2. Theistic Experience (TE) is a well-established type of experience

3. It seems (epistematically) to S that God exists on the basis of a TE.

4. The TE is not defeated

5. Therefore, S is justified to believe that God exists

(Kwan, 512)

Now note that I’m not  claiming that God does exist based on this argument, only that S is justified to believe that God does exist. I am thus confronting the de jure challenges to theistic belief–claims that such belief is unjustified or irrational (Plantinga, 167). These kind of challenges to theistic belief are exactly the kind that Dawkins seems to be referencing in The God Delusion, in fact, the book’s title points to the general accusation that anti-theists have brought against theism in general, but particularly against Christianity. The charge is that it is delusional to believe such things.

And indeed, such charges have (and likely will continue to be) been brought against Christianity despite, and perhaps even because of such arguments as the argument from TE. But I think that the PTC is indeed valid, and warrant is granted to those who have had TEs to take that on principal as a justification for belief.

There is of course further application involving a cumulative case argument in which TE can be weighed against simple spiritual experience or experiences of other faiths (such as a connection to the ONE or a feeling of emptiness). I don’t wish to explore that yet, but it is worth noting that there has been, of late, a somewhat significant increase in writings on these subjects.

I do believe that the argument from TE carries some weight, but it is mostly weight for those who have had TEs to counter charges that such ideas are delusional or unjustified, rather than being an argument for the existance of God. I think arguments of this type are fruitful, and I’m looking forward to reading more on them.


Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.

Kwan, Kai-Man. “The Argument from Religious Experience.” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief.

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


7 thoughts on “Religious Experiences: Providing Warrant for Belief in God

  1. I don’t see this making the case that an experience on its own is proof that God exists. The problem with these is that they’re all subjective, and given the brain’s untrustworthy nature in general (read about malleability of memory, blind spots, saccades, etc) honestly I’m amazed anyone trusts the brain at all. The more we learn about neuroscience, the more it seems the brain just makes a “best guess” at reality. And this is for our animal senses, which are generally pretty pragmatic; we know we can tie our own minds up in mental knots, so imagine the distortion possible inside our own heads.

    Also, it’s possible to induce states like these, and even control behavior, using transcranial magnetic stimulation. Again, this does not rule out God’s existence, or even the idea that He may stimulate that specific area of the brain to cause revelations of His presence, but it’s worth thinking about that we can create these states at will too.

    All that aside, something this subjective cannot be used as proof or disproof. It’s a form of presuppositionalism, “I believe in God, therefore the fact that these experiences may happen to any number of people should be construed as evidence for God’s existence.”

    Basically, certainty does not equal truth. People can be utterly honest and convinced but also wrong; how long did we believe dead bodies generated flies spontaneously in themselves? For any statement to have any predictive, proving, or disproving power, it MUST be vetted logically against the world around us.

    Posted by Jude | October 16, 2009, 9:43 AM
    • You’ve ignored what I’ve said about naturalistic explanations. There’s no reason to think that just because we can figure out the causes or even cause them ourselves, that they are somehow naturalistic to begin with. God, on theism, works within nature on many points, so it would make sense that there could be a naturalistic cause for an RE.

      And again, this is another post in which you have either ignored what I said or chosen to misinterpret it. I never say that an RE proves on its own that God exists. At all. The very title of this post contains “Providing Warrant…” I am not saying they are definitive, but that they grant additional epistemological warrant for belief in God.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 16, 2009, 4:47 PM
  2. You say they grant added epistemiological warrant for belief in God, but the fact that these states can be induced on their own grants added epistemiological warrant for belief that religion actually IS all in the mind, a conclusion even I don’t want to touch.

    Also, you’re presupposing again: “God, on theism, works within nature on many points, so it would make sense that there could be a naturalistic cause for an RE.” How do you know? This is another argument from definition. Basically, because you presuppose that God was/is responsible for anything and everything’s existence and happening and knows all (the “omni-” attributes), by definition even something that seems to have a naturalistic definition could or even must necessarily be caused by God.

    Also, this raises another question: why does God ONLY seem to use these obscure, could-as-well-be-random-brain-noise ways of revealing His presence these days? I know about the verse where God supposedly says “I leave you with another comforter/friend [the Holy Spirit],” but if we assume that’s all of God’s presence left, there’s no sense praising God the father or son for what we perceive as miracles.

    I think I’m about done with this blog. I’ve learned that no matter how good a debater someone is, if their arguments all start from presuppositionalism, there is no real arguing with them. As one apologist said, “You have to start from God to get to God.” Thanks for the practice; I have never done this before.

    Posted by Jude | October 16, 2009, 7:38 PM
    • No, my argument is from Classical Theism. If you want to argue about RE’s within a deistic, or perhaps a pantheistic or other view, feel free to do so. I’m arguing for theism, and so obviously I’m going to use theism as the standard.

      You may ask questions like “why does God ONLY seem to use these obscure…?” but I don’t see what relevance this has at all. Certainly it can’t possibly be any kind of analytic statement, for what exactly is the argument supposed to be? How is it that we are supposed to determine how God should choose to reveal Himself?

      Your use of the Bible shows some interesting use of eisegesis in interpretation. What about verses like “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)?

      Finally, your conclusion that “You have to start from God to get to God” seems a little strange, considering how people come to faith. How does someone “without” the presupposition of God “get to God” if they cannot do so?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 17, 2009, 5:16 AM


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